Kumo – A Meditative Kaiseki

DC and I were celebrating a special occasion and, having been there once and enjoying the food immensely, we chose Kumo. We opted for the kaiseki menu at $168 per person. The chef showcases the ingredients of the season and his skill with the various courses. He also checked whether we had any particular dislikes or preferences before starting our dinner.

The first course came as a tasting appetiser platter. Unfortunately, the waitress wasn’t very experienced and didn’t give an description of our dish before disappearing to fetch our sake. We started from right to left, tasting the unagi topped with kinome leaf (it’s a kind of pepper plant and the aroma was similar to kaffir lime leaf, with hints of mint), then a jumbo-size broad bean that was half sprouted, a sweet vinegary lotus root, some kind of soft brown shoot, a boiled prawn that was a bit too sugary for my taste, something quite familiar – choy sum – that’s apparently a spring delicacy in Japan, and scallop with sweet yuzu sauce. It was all halfway decent, and would probably have been more interesting had I known what they all were without having to figure it all out with a Japanese cookbook on seasonal food at home. One problem was that the scallop was on the verge of being unfresh, forgivable in lesser establishments, but certainly not at a kaiseki place that’s celebrating the freshness of seasonal produce (and also the former fatness of one’s wallet).

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By then, the sake arrived and we were distracted by the not-quite stellar start. DC chose a bubbly sake, something we’ve not tried before. It’s called Takara Mio ($28 for 300ml) and scored -7 on the dry-sweet scale, the numbers decreasing as it got sweeter. The first hit of the sake gave the immediate impression of 7-Up, except with a sake nose. It’s hardly made for the connoisseur, and with only 5% alcohol, could well pass for a girly alcopop. We enjoyed the floral fizz, it was a lovely change from the usual sake.

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But I jumped ahead too fast to the sake. The sake bottle was accompanied to the table by a tray of pretty sake glasses and we each chose a unique one from which to enjoy our sake. What a lovely touch.

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The next dish was explained by a more knowledgeable waitress. It was sesame tofu and icefish in dashi. I wasn’t sure about the tofu on its own, because it was somehow rather bitter, but I liked the texture and aroma combination that made it very reminiscent of our local ahbaling (glutinous rice balls stuffed with black sesame). It was much better taken with the soup and smushed in the mouth so that it became creamy and fragrant. The icefish was quite like local white bait, just a bit bigger – rather like an intermediate between local and western white bait. Soft bones were part of the deal and it was a bit weird to feel them going down. The icefish had a nice delicately fishy flavour but wasn’t very special. The kinome leaf featured again, to my delight and the fern was only okay. I was a bit disappointed that it couldn’t last long enough from its trip from Japan as it was already browning slightly and wasn’t super fresh.

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Now the sashimi course was what grabbed my attention. Oh my, how many ways was it divine? The fish, for a start. Just three kinds, but fantastically chosen to showcase delicate white fish in the form of hirame (flounder), then oily white fish in the form of hamachi (yellowtail) and oily red fish in the star of otoro (tuna belly). First of all, the sashimi was supremely fresh and faultless. It was also cut perfectly – no sinews, no weird bits marring the pure taste of fish. Then the soy sauce. It had a deep, almost smoky flavour and really brought out the flavour of the fish. As if that wasn’t enough, the garnishes came into play too. There were pretty pink turnip slices, sour-savoury marinated chrysanthemum petals (not the usual bitter, yum!), mouth-numbingly hot mustard sprouts, marinated seaweed and freshly grated wasabe. The star of the garnishes was the sprig of pink flowers. Eat them on their own and it’s nothing special. But drop them into the soy sauce and you get an unexpected fragrance when eating the sashimi. And the otoro part – it was stunning with lovely marbling and flavour. I don’t even need to say it hardly required any chewing. Beautiful.

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The next course, while not as headline grabbing as the sashimi course, was nonetheless stunning. I loved the salted grilled hamachi cheek. The insides were very soft and flavourful from the fish oils and the salty-sticky-chewy-crisp bits of the skin was a lovely contrast. For the inside flesh that needed a little lift, there was some grated daikon that had a dash of soy sauce added to the top. The sideshows were stellar, with three kinds of tempura and four kinds of boiled items. The tempura was very interesting, all of vegetables that aren’t in your regular tempura set. There was a type of shoot with a delicate garlic-like flavour, a chrysanthemum flower (cooking seems to cook out the bitterness, and baby cabbage that was essentially a brussels sprout without the bitterness. Of the boiled items, the sweet potato tasted as if it had been soaked in pure sugar, which was such an oddity (assuming of course that the sweetness was all natural). Otherwise, the sweet bean, Japanese red carrot, and konnyaku (yam jelly) weren’t particularly special. I never quite understood the point of konnyaku in savoury dishes anyway.

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The performance started to sag at this point. It was still interesting, because they served different parts of the boiled octopus. There were the usual tentacles, but also part of the head, which contained tightly-packed roe. It was topped with the same creamy yuzu sauce as the scallop in the first dish. I wasn’t too enamoured by the flavours and textures of this dish, but it could in part be due to my guilt for eating octopus. See, I don’t normally eat octopus. When I went diving in Komodo, I was told that octopi are generally almost impossible to catch because they are so intelligent and are masters of stealth and disguise. Only female octopi get so hungry while tending their laid eggs that they throw caution to the winds and move out to get food. This is when they get caught, and the result is that the next generation of octopi die too, because their mother isn’t around to oxygenate the eggs. But I dunno, seeing that this octopus had unlaid eggs inside, perhaps it was simply a dumb one caught unawares? Who knows.

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The next dish was the weakest link in the menu. It was a seaweed stew with bamboo shoots and grilled scallops. We first tasted the seaweed stew, which was essentially pureed seaweed. It was strongly umami-flavoured yet strangely not very salty. Then I tasted the grilled scallop, but not before appreciating the delicate grill markings on it. This time, the scallop was top-notch fresh. The downfall were the bamboo shoots as they were way too salty, so much so that even a prolonged dunk in the seaweed stew didn’t do it any good. The balance was completely off, and hardly saved by the aromatic kinome leaf. Bad move.

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The next dish got a little better. It was done super simply – just boiled and dribbled with a delicate goma sauce. The green vegetable was Japanese butterbur, which is very much like celery except that it was tubular o-shape rather than celery’s c-shape. It was similarly fibrous, but hadn’t any particular flavour. The mountain yam was starchy and very slightly sticky, so DC initially thought they gave us potato by mistake.

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The tempura course was where things started to really pick up. I’ve not had wagyu tempura before so this was quite the revelation. The batter was very delicate so that it would complement the soft beef that was slow-cooked till the tendons were melting. I was glad to see the garlic shoot-like plant feature again. It was especially good with the dipping salt.

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By now, I was so full that the sushi course, signalling the end of the savoury courses, was a big relief. The chef cleverly left the best to the last. The first thing about the sushi was how prettily it was plated. Then as I ate each piece, I realised that the rice was firm and had a mouthfilling savour rather than the typical vinegary aroma of the regular type of sushi rice. By this time, the sheer number of courses and the effects of the sake had kicked in and I don’t remember each bite as clearly as earlier on with the sashimi. As expected, the fish was top notch fresh. What I liked was that each piece of sushi had some kind of topping as a play on the texture. The anago was delicately tender, going well with the crisp cucumber slice and the smoky aburi tai (torched seabream) came with a few strange chewy sticks of (yam? seaweed?) on the top. The┬ákohada (gizzard shad) came with ginger and spring onions on top and was very lightly vinegared, unlike the usual sharp blast when other places do it to less than fresh mackeral. There was a seasonal fish called sayori that had a shiso leaf and some of its own bones, deep-fried, on the top. It was rather special. The otoro came with an interesting chopped wasabe leaf topping that gave a whole different perspective of how we usually see wasabe. The best part was that they gave an extra dollop of wasabe on the side to dip the sushi with impunity. Yum.

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Dessert really was pretty much an afterthought. The sakura cheesecake was frozen and decent enough, but nothing special. Similarly, the fruits were only decent. I found it a waste to spend money importing Japanese strawberries only to find mine tart: it was hopeless to fight against the strawberry coulis. Aside from that, I liked the sweet-tart mango, which quite definitely didn’t come from Japan. And the mochi was decent with the red bean.

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I can’t decide whether the dessert was a letdown or a soft landing for the dinner. It definitely clarified how good the sashimi and sushi courses were, and in a way reset the palate back to the real world. I wish I had more occasions and a fatter wallet to have this more often.

Kumo
12 Gopeng Street, Icon Village, #01-58
Singapore 078877
Tel: +65 6225 8433